Part II of a series: Using "my conscience" as the universal excuse for all behavior.
Ready for a non-trivial Trivia Question? Where do these words come from? “I’m all dressed up and no place to go.” Option 1: Various songs bewailing teen loneliness. Option 2: The tragic, unwitting anthem of those using a distorted account of conscience based on moral relativism. Answer: It’s both!
When I last wrote about conscience here, I warned against misusing “Let your conscience be your guide” as a noble-sounding cover for the rebellious “I’m gonna do whatever the hell I want because conscience!” I also noted that, “…we can only meaningfully assert the right to follow one’s conscience if we equally insist upon the duty to have a well-formed conscience. At a minimum, that duty will include informing ourselves about ethical norms, incorporating that knowledge into our daily lives, acting according to that knowledge, and taking responsibility for those actions.” And that brings us to deadly situation of being “all dressed up and no place to go.”
Moral relativism, applying conscience as a salve to bleach out all moral norms and duties, only makes sense if we humans don’t have a human nature, and so can’t have a good that will satisfy, complete and perfect us. In other words, moral relativism, and its use of conscience as the universal excuse for all behavior, only makes sense if we don’t live in a moral universe. Sure, we might have rationality and free will, but we can’t know or choose anything truly good or evil. We’ve got tools with no purpose and needs that can’t be met—we’re all dressed up and no place to go.
Of course, that’s an absurd position to endorse. No one can really live that way. But it’s attractive, because we get to wrap ourselves in the mantle of “conscience” while engaging in destructive behavior. That view endangers all of human life, making love, friendship and civility impossible, and, worst of all, separates us from God.
God made us with a purpose, namely, to love him and our neighbor in this life and to enjoy perfect eternal happiness in Heaven. In other words, we most certainly do have a place to go—and it is glorious! We also have a way to get there, which is living a morally good life, that is, living a life in harmony with our human nature—composed of body and soul—a life that includes justice and charity for God and neighbor.
We also have a compass to guide us as we take each step along our moral life—that is our conscience. A good compass is useful and reliable only if it points to true North, which in the moral life includes both the natural law and the revelation entrusted to the Church Christ founded. Any other compass can’t get us to where we need to go.
The way home, that is, the path to Heaven, can be known by our reason. Judged with certainty to be our true end and only lasting happiness, we can love our destination even now. Said another way: Our will can choose to love what we know to be good and to be good for us. Working together, intellect and will can order our lives so that we can pass successfully from time to eternity, from this life to the next.
As Christians, we also know that we are wounded by sin. Our intellects are darkened, our wills are weakened. We need the revelation entrusted by Christ to his Church to enlighten our minds. And we need the grace of Christ mediated through his Church to strengthen our wills. Rather than appealing to conscience as a justification for whatever pleases us at the moment, conscience, supported by both faith and reason, can become the trustworthy guide to a moral life in time, leading to happiness in eternity.
Now here’s the hard part: Sometimes, I suspect that very few people have ever been taught what I’ve just written above. (And those thoughts are not merely “my” words; they are simply my account of common sense, perennial philosophy and the constant teaching of the Church.) A survey of my friends who are teachers, from pre-school level to doctoral candidates, in both secular and religious schools, have told me that the majority of their students are convinced moral relativists—or at least they find relativism comfortably convenient. To offer a classical account of conscience to these students would lead to accusations of being “judgmental, closeminded and intolerant.” (And if you are a seminarian, I hear that you would be labelled “rigid.”)
We have a lot of work to do. Souls, societies and civilizations are lost if we surrender moral law and conscience to the banner of relativism.
When I write next, I will continue our conversation about conscience. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.